Belgian chocolatiers savour sweet taste of world domination

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Some time ago, a uniformed US Air Force officer from Nato headquarters arrived at Passion Chocolat, a tiny chocolatier in a suburban Brussels street, and threw staff into a panic by asking for 40 boxes of chocolate.

Their efforts to accommodate him were rewarded a few weeks later with a thank-you note - from the White House.

The popularity of Passion Chocolat is just one example of how Belgian chocolate is taking the world by storm. Set up in her own home by a widow with four children, the shop has become such a symbol of success that the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, took its chocolates on a trade mission to the US.

Another Brussels producer, Chocolatier Mary, boasts the US President as a customer. The shop displays a photo of George Bush lingering over its praline counter. Mary, which has no advertising budget or international profile to speak of, processes internet orders every week. Air-freight exports go to the US, South Korea, Japan and India, and have doubled for each of the past five years.

No nation lavishes as much time and attention on its chocolate as Belgium. Internationally known brands include Neuhaus and Godiva at the luxury end, and Leonidas and Guylian in the cheaper end. But, in Belgium, chocolate is more than business. It is part of the culture.

Different chocolatiers specialise in specific fillings, consequently Belgium's chocolate industry is as varied as it is big. With a population of around 10 million, Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate a year and has more than 2,000 shops.

Moreover, it supports 290 chocolate-makers, 140 of which have fewer than five employees, and seem more like someone's quaint front room, rather than a world-renowned business. Passion Chocolat is the prime example of such small-scale operations. Its founder, Claire Macq, nearly emigrated to Australia after her first husband died, but decided to open the business instead. Though her chocolates cost €45 (£31) a kilo, customers are often queuing outside the shop by the time it opens, at the genteel hour of midday.

Across the city, in Rue Royale, Mary's chocolates are also hand-made, preservative-free, and cost €48 a kilo - exactly three times as much as mass-produced, but good quality, Leonidas. On the counter lie 10 40kg boxes of chocolate, wrapped in isothermal bags, for export. "Most of the exports are going to the US, and the most spectacular growth is in internet sales," Mary's owner, Michel Boey, says. "We began selling via the internet in 2001 and, from zero, exports are now about 15 per cent of our sales."

For the big factory producers such as Guylian, the figures are even higher. The firm, which began 46 years ago as a family chocolatier in Antwerp, is now based at a hi-tech plant turning out 70 tons of chocolate a day. Its managing director, Carl Krefting, says Guylian chocolates are "not the most expensive, and not the cheapest", a formula which brought about growth of 14 per cent in 2005.

Belgium's love affair with chocolate dates from 1857 when Jean Neuhaus left Switzerland to set up shop in Brussels. His grandson, also called Jean Neuhaus, created the first filled chocolate, which he named "praline", and his wife invented the type of box, or "ballotin", in which Belgian chocolate is sold. Perhaps more important than history is the Belgian national obsession with good food and a willingness to pay for it.

"The Belgians are bon viveurs," said Ms Macq of Passion Chocolat. "We love Belgian cuisine and here there is a lot of competition. Every chocolatier wants to be better than the other."

Meanwhile, in all areas of food, affluent consumers in rich countries want to eat less but better. The stress is on "quality rather than quantity, in the post-Atkins world", says Mr Krefting.

Nowhere is this more the case than in Britain, Guylian's biggest market. Here big producers have dominated the market and "Cadbury's Dairy Milk and Black Magic were all [British consumers] knew about", Mr Krefting said. Now all that is changing. Guylian is flying off the shelves of British supermarkets. Mr Boey lists the UK as one of his growing export markets and Ms Macq dreams of opening a small shop in London.